Last weekend, we celebrated the first anniversary of our move from north London to north Herefordshire. It was 12 July 2002, shortly after 2pm, when we bade farewell to our home of more than eight years, trying not to let our emotions settle on the fact that our third child had been born in the upstairs bathroom. Jane, in the throes of labour, had been encouraged by the midwife to focus on something, so for some reason she focused on the dodgy toilet flush. And now that flush was someone else's to grapple with. Oh, woe was us! As our friends lined up to wave goodbye, it was as well that I was at the wheel. For my sobbing wife, visibility was reduced to no more than a yard, although, as it happens, a yard's visibility is all you need on the North Circular Road at about 2pm on a Friday.
The roads were freakishly busy that day and the journey to rural Herefordshire took well over four hours, almost as long as it takes to cross the Atlantic. It seemed symbolic. It should take a bit of time to reach a new life. A week earlier, an acquaintance of Jane's had said that she and her family were off to live in Malawi for three years. "How scary," said Jane. "Not as scary as what you're doing," came the reply. "At least we're coming back."
Scary is right. But also exciting, exhausting, enlightening and enriching. And that just covers my dealings with the septic tank. So here, in no particular order of significance, are 20 things I have learnt on the steep learning curve we have travelled these past 12 months... and if they make the me of a year ago sound patronising, naïve, or plain ignorant, I probably was.
1. The country contains loads of interesting, broad-minded people living rich, fulfilling lives
In London, folk fall broadly into three categories vis-à-vis the country. There are those who truly yearn to sell up and move to a thatched idyll; those who gaze mournfully into estate agents' windows on weekends in the sticks but know it probably wouldn't work; and those who wouldn't touch the country with a bargepole - in fact, wouldn't touch a bargepole. But what unites all these people is the conviction that they would struggle to find kindred spirits in the country, that minds get narrower by roughly one neuro-watt - or however one measures breadth of mind - per mile beyond the M25. It ain't so.
2. The bottom oven of the Aga is ideal for thawing out a sparrow with hypothermia
We became Aga-owners with trepidation, and watched bemusedly as an evangelical light came into our friend Dominic's eye whenever he talked about his. As he listed the many things that an Aga can do, things of which an ordinary oven is physically and indeed spiritually incapable, it was difficult not to be reminded of Dr Billy Graham talking about the Almighty. But now we are Aga evangelists too.
3. Fashion doesn't matter
Even as a city-dweller I never worshipped at the shrine of Gianni Versace or Paul Smith. But I tried, mainly to please my wife, to maintain certain standards. Those standards are now consigned to the compost heap. Here, the dirtier a pair of jeans gets, the longer I am likely to wear them.
4. Five hundred copulating frogs make a noise like distant motorbikes revving up
A year ago I was unacquainted with the love life of a frog. But that state of blissful ignorance has changed dramatically under the earnest tutorship of our neighbour Will, a wildlife consultant, who introduced me, in a park on the outskirts of Hereford, to a frog version of the Playboy Mansion. Thanks to Will and his friends, I also have almost dissertation-level knowledge of bats, yellow-necked mice and obscure types of lichen.
5. Friends you occasionally invited to dinner parties in London are not necessarily people with whom you wish to spend an entire weekend
Take friends A and B. We like them, and in London had them to dinner every six months or so. And we like them enough to want to see them still. But the only way of seeing them now is to invite them for the weekend, which is when we discover that A would rather disembowel herself than pick up a tea-towel to dry a dish, B has an annoying habit of reading the paper while you are cooking breakfast for him, and one of their four children does banshee impressions at 5am.
6. Septic tanks are easily blocked
I could write 2,000 words on this subject alone. I'd better not even get started...
7. Fox-hunting is not a toff thing
Obviously there are toffs who do it, but by no means all of those who do it are toffs. So the class-war that is manifestly part of the anti-blood sports hysteria is built on a false premise. The other false premise is that foxes will be better off once hunting with dogs is banned. In fact, more of them will die, and more of them will die in pain.
8. Living in the country makes you infinitely more reliant on the car than in the city; conversely, it is infinitely more pleasant to drive
In 12 months I have seen only one case of road rage in Herefordshire, and even that was more a case of road slightly-miffedness. The concept of giving way to the right at a roundabout does not seem to exist round here; by which I don't mean everyone moves forward at once, as in Paris, but everyone gives way to everyone else. It is consequently possible to remain at a Herefordshire roundabout for up to three weeks, smiling at other drivers.
9. Rural transport services are, for want of a better word, pants
As far as we can ascertain, the bus from Bromyard to Leominster passes our house only on the third Tuesday of months with an X in them, and even then only if there's a full moon. It is no wonder that most teenagers round here organise a driving test about a minute past their 17th birthday, and beat themselves with thorny branches if they fail.
10. There are four seasons
It has become a cliché, almost bereft of meaning, to say that living in the countryside makes you more aware of the seasons. But it does. And seeing the seasons changing is palpably good for the soul. In Crouch End there were really only two seasons; the one with leaves on the pavement and the one without.
11. Not until this house passes to our great-great-great grandchildren will we truly be considered local. If then
We have been living here a year, but it might as well be 90 seconds as far as genuine assimilation goes. Which is not to say we haven't been accepted into the community. People have been very kind. But even those who moved here with toddlers, who now have toddlers of their own, tell us they are still re- garded as outsiders. Again, this was very different in London. If you can trace your family back more than five years in Crouch End, you are entitled to your own folk song.
12. Septuagenarians are as much fun as thirtysomethings. Often, more fun
Before our move, a friend who had left Chiswick for rural Gloucestershire explained that one of the pleasures of country living was making friends across the generations. That with far fewer people around, you accumulate friends according to like-mindedness rather than age. This is demonstrably the case, and our lives are the richer for it.
13. You don't need more than four chickens to smell like a chicken farmer
On the way into Leominster one day I picked up a hitch- hiker who asked me if I was a chicken farmer. He said he could smell the chickens on me. Marigold, Ginger, Amber and Babs have a lot to answer for.
14. Dr Johnson was wrong
What was it the old curmudgeon wrote about the man who is tired of London being tired of life? Actually, as much as the litter, graffiti and traffic were beginning to get us down, we didn't leave London because we were tired of it. Indeed, we were apprehensive about forsaking its many assets... theatres, cinemas, art galleries and above all the Jalalaya Indian restaurant delivery service. In the country, if you crave culture, or curry, you have to work harder. But it's there.
15. They have four-wheel drives in the country, too
Victoria Wood's stand-up shtick includes a hilarious assault on the north London mothers who take their children to the Fluffy Bunny Montessori school in vast Range Rovers with bumpers built to withstand marauding rhino. So it's nice to move to a part of the country where such vehicles are necessary. Not that we've yet encountered marauding rhino. Just a runaway bullock.
16. Ground elder is a damn nuisance
I have begun to discover my inner Monty Don this past year. As keen as I was to see colour in our city garden, it was hard, within a 30ft square, to awaken whatever gardening instincts lay dormant. We now have several acres, and although I am still a novice, I have taken to wearing a pair of secateurs much as Billy the Kid wore his left-handed gun. The vegetable garden in particular is a source of pride, mixed with backache.
17. The cost of living in the country is no cheaper than the city
At first we thought it was. Take the cost of parking. Although the good folk of Leominster fought the introduction of parking charges tooth and nail, 20p an hour doesn't seem punitive to someone who has lived in London, where you've pretty much run up 20p's worth of parking before you get out of the car. But such savings are cancelled out by our vastly increased expenditure on petrol.
18. Pampas grass in your front garden is a sign that you are swingers
It was at a dinner in aid of the Docklow Church repair fund, oddly enough, that a woman asked me if I'd be prepared to throw my car keys into the middle of the table. "You know what we're like in the country," she said, with a glint in her eye. "Anything for a bit of excitement." She was joking, of course, but in the subsequent conversation about wife-swapping, someone said that clumps of pampas grass in front of a house indicate that the residents are prepared to swing. However, this begs more questions than it answers. What if you happen to buy a house with pampas grass already at the front? And more alarmingly, what happens if your pampas grass is, as ours is, at the back?
19. The country is full of flies
Nobody told us this.
20. Writing a weekly newspaper column about your life in the country is a risky business
My Tales of the Country column gets loads of feedback and most of it, I'm pleased to say, is positive and often helpful, as in tips on how to deal with broody hens. But I get a few nasty letters, too, and obviously have upset some people along the way, both city-dwellers who think me disparaging, and country folk who find me condescending. I try not to be either. But all I can do is apologise, assure you that, alas, it probably will happen again, and take solace in a glass of cold Herefordshire cider. Cheers.
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